Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, Jonathan Kay, Harper, 340 pages
Before Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate in April, at least three polls reported that a quarter of Americans suspected that their president was born outside of the United States, contemporaneous newspaper announcements of his birth be damned. Most Birthers—those doubting the president’s American origins—call the Republican Party home, and while most Republicans are not Birthers, winning a multicandidate GOP presidential primary doesn’t require getting the votes of most Republicans; a plurality will do.
Donald Trump, possessing money and name recognition but without credentials among the GOP’s base, established his bona fides on the conspiratorial right by criticizing the president into the birth-certificate document-drop. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also courted the Birthers early in her campaign, while Mitt Romney risked alienating them by rejecting outright charges about the president’s ineligibility for the office that he holds. An instance of principle trumping politics? Maybe not: the former Massachusetts governor has himself been coy about the name that appears on his birth certificate. (It’s Willard Milton, not Mitt.)
How a preoccupation on the farthest recesses of the Internet piqued the interest of mainstream news outlets and presidential candidates is in some sense the story of Jonathan Kay’s Among the Truthers. The title refers to advocates of a diverse set of hypotheses supposing the fraudulence of the standard 9/11 narrative. The devil figure for the Truthers generally turns out to be George W. Bush; for the Birthers his successor. How comforting always to discover one’s political enemies, but never one’s allies, behind nefarious deeds. As Among the Truthers explains, “all successful conspiracy theories” have been “a lie that people wanted to hear.”
We encounter all manner of conspiratorial thinking herein: the refusal to believe that extraordinary people die in ordinary ways; the interpretation of evidence against the theory as evidence for the cunning of the cabalists; the idea that “there is no such thing as an honest casus belli”; and the desire to see complicated events conform to neat patterns. Cui bono? Certainly not the conspiracy theorists, who become social pariahs ridiculed for their obsessions.
To the author’s credit he withstands the impulse to mock. A book dripping with condescension would have been trite. If that book hasn’t been written, the article has—a million times or more. Kay goes out of his way to highlight the intelligence, knowledge, and earnestness of the zealots he encounters. We meet Richard Gage, an “affable,” “mild-mannered,” successful architect who is a rock-star speaker on the Truther circuit; David Icke, a former professional soccer goalie who has since unveiled the space-alien identities of the puppet masters manipulating earthly politics; and Webster Tarpley, an “avuncular” Fulbright Scholar with “a genuinely impressive knowledge of world history” who finds the CIA behind such diverse events as the Red Brigades’ terrorism and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For these men, desperation may have followed immersion in conspiracy theory, but didn’t preface it.
The implication of Kay’s vignettes is that the lack of something other than smarts—Prudence? Wisdom? Humility?—makes one susceptible to far-flung notions. Conspiracy theories, in fact, may disproportionately attract intelligent people. Nobody could call Pierre Salinger, Gore Vidal, or Bobby Fischer—adherents of various farfetched ideas—stupid. The conspiracy theory’s logic-puzzle structure (like an unhealthy crossword puzzle or Sudoku), its attempt to systematize scattered facts, and the ego boost it awards to the elect who have seen the truth that few others have glimpsed are among the reasons smart people might be drawn to something so fundamentally ludicrous.
Kay dismisses the convenient smear that stupidity or bigotry stands as the common denominator of cranks. “What cranks truly crave is the exhilarating sense of independence, control, and superiority that comes from declaring oneself a self-sufficient intellectual force,” he declares. “Conspiracism is a natural outlet for this craving since conspiracy theories always exist in opposition to some received truth that enjoys the blessing of experts, and because the associated claims are regarded as daring and controversial.”
The fanatic rarely finds lifelong monogamy with the first conspiracy theory he falls in love with. He can’t help himself as one uncovered plot leads to another mystery to be solved. As Kay puts it, “Scratch the surface of a middle-aged 9/11 Truther, and you are almost guaranteed to find a JFK conspiracist.” If you had remained for hour three of his diatribe, the crank would have gotten around to talking about another topic.
The reader appreciates the author’s sound decision to refrain from weighing the merits of the various theories discussed. The faith-based community that embraces the zealot’s eccentric speculations is impervious to reason; the unconverted, dismissing tales of shadowy machinations among the powerful as fanciful, are likely to find refutations of the preposterous a waste of time, too. Kay plays anthropologist rather than sleuth. He doesn’t necessarily want to understand the theory, just the theorists.
Yet among the book’s flaws are the inherent obstacles in making sense of the senseless, the author’s misguided suppositions about his subjects’ misguided suppositions, and an idiosyncratic jumping from one conspiracist to the next without drawing any obvious connection between them. The stories Kay relates are sometimes without structure, seemingly without purpose. The book’s not very tight.
“Conspiracism is deeply rooted in American thinking,” Kay maintains. He identifies “the three major influences of American conspiracism” as “apocalyptic religiosity, faith in small government, and the rapid onset of invasive technology.” This is repeatedly asserted but never sufficiently explained. Is conspiracy theorizing an especially American trait? Trutherism gained followers on late-night U.S. radio. But in Europe it reigned atop the bestseller lists. Around the world, ill-conceived ideas about American influence behind everything from the Boxing Day tsunami to the poorly performing Venezuelan economy thrive.
Among the Truthers’ manic structure, bouncing from Birthers to Truthers to Grassy Knollers, has a head-spinning quality reminiscent of a conversation with a conspiracy theorist. Did Kay go native?
In any event, his proposed cure is worse than the disease. Kay may be correct that public disillusionment with large institutions breeds conspiracy theories. But refuting nutters seems like a weak reason for rehabilitating the deservedly bad reputations of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Media. He writes, “the institutions that we once counted on to discourage radicalism and guide our society toward common ground—organized religion, a vibrant academy, an influential mainstream media, and a respected central government—no longer command the public trust.” Is that entirely a bad thing?
Kay is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose leadership has explained away its false assessment of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction by adopting new conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the WMD were whisked away into Syria. Though Kay has elsewhere displayed refreshing candor in reexamining his Iraq War delusions, the book’s exclusion of the conspiracy theories in front of the author’s nose makes one wonder about the difficulty of recognizing tinfoil hats when they sit atop our friends’ heads.
Yet the book’s biggest problem isn’t its author but his subjects. Like the conspiracy theorist struggling to force uncooperative events to fit his desired scheme, the chronicler of conspiracy theorists who seeks to impose coherence on incoherent people collides with reality. Kay says as much: “the only characteristic that strongly correlates with belief in any particular conspiracy theory is a belief in other conspiracy theories.” He occasionally forgets this, citing as influences on the spread of conspiracism sources as diverse as fundamentalist Christianity and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Perhaps Kay does not consider these strong correlatives; his mentioning of such alleged influences without providing much of a supporting line of reasoning leaves the reader puzzled. The non sequitur, staple of conspiratorial screeds, is not altogether foreign to these pages.
Conspiracy theories are conversation stoppers. They are not a road to intellectual inquiry but a roadblock. For the evangelist, a Tourette-like impulse to spread the good news runs up against the hands-on-ears heathen erecting barriers to prevent being hectored. Is the former’s desire to speak greater than the latter’s desire not to listen? That generally determines whether the lecturer gets an audience. It is an ironic cruelty for all parties that the people who most desperately want to talk are the ones we most desperately want to shut up.
Readers sympathetic to Kay’s skepticism are likely to cringe at the monologues of conspiracy theorists who find plots everywhere in a world where nothing is as it seems. Yet to read Among the Truthers is to surround oneself with breathless, mile-a-minute talkers insisting that vaccinations cause autism, the lunar landing occurred on a Hollywood set, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration blew up the New Orleans levees to exacerbate the destructiveness of Hurricane Katrina. Surely this is more than one person’s version of hell.
Conspiracy theorists are, in a word, bores. A book about them can’t help but be a bit boring, too.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals: How the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, forthcoming this October from ISI Books.